Monday, February 15, 2010

Of rule, revenue, and raging violations of the Fourth Amendment

No one much likes to be taxed. Many Americans, however, actively hate to be taxed. The U.S. is, relatively speaking, an undertaxed society, especially since the Reagan years, and local, state, and federal governments must try to find ways to raise money that do not involve taxation. This is a problem even in good economic times, and in bad times an acute one. Here's a small example: Every two years I receive a notice in the mail telling me that I must take my car to a facility to have its emission system checked to make sure that it's not violating Maryland's emissions laws. I duly take my car to the facility, fork over fourteen dollars, watch while the technician does something -- and the 'something', to someone's credit, seems to have gotten quicker and more streamlined over the years -- and am handed a piece of paper saying that my car has passed the test. What does this accomplish? Well, I suppose it gives a number (albeit a relatively small number) of people jobs, and I am, all things weighed, definitely in favor of that. It also may make a very marginal contribution to cleaner air, but this is doubtful it seems to me, since how many owners of polluting vehicles are going to obey the notice? -- more than likely they're just going to rip it up. That leaves the real purpose of the exercise: to raise money for the local and perhaps the state governments, and to raise it in a way that does not involve taxation. (I think I'd rather pay fourteen extra dollars in tax every two years and be spared the time and inconvenience of taking my car in for the emissions check, but my preference is presumably not widely shared.)

This is all by way of preface to expressing some -- well, outrage seems the appropriate word -- at seeing tonight's NewsHour report on so-called DUI checkpoints in California. I say "so-called" because the real purpose of these checkpoints, the report made clear, is to find people driving without licenses, impound their cars for thirty days, and then either collect the fines that people pay to retrieve them or, if no one retrieves the vehicle, auction it off. The result is that millions of dollars flow into local government coffers, specifically the coffers of the local police agencies (with a chunk going to the towing companies). Never mind that the people whose cars are impounded are overwhelmingly undocumented immigrants (who often need their cars in the most imperative sense as their survival may depend on driving to a job); and never mind that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has already ruled that the warrantless impoundment of cars under these circumstances is unconstitutional. (The state's legal powers-that-be claim to be waiting for another ruling from the Ninth Circuit but I couldn't see anything unclear about the first one, judging from this report.) After all, the Ninth Circuit ruling is just a piece of paper to those who want to ignore it, and it would be hard as a practical matter (though not impossible, I think) to hold the entire police force of a city in contempt of court.

Now there are probably good reasons from a safety standpoint to get unlicensed drivers off the road, as a Berkeley professor suggested at the outset of the piece. But it's not clear that the impoundments accomplish this. One person interviewed said that when his car was impounded he just went out and bought another. He knew he was doing something illegal by driving unlicensed but he needed a car to get to his construction job. (Presumably some people in that situation can't afford to buy another car, but there were no statistics presented on that. And if you search hard, you can find some pretty inexpensive cars out there. How about driving unlicensed and in a clunker? What gain for safety then?)

If you want to reduce unlicensed driving, do it openly, not under the cover of a DUI check. If you want to reduce drunk driving, how about raising the age for a driver's license? If you want to raise revenue, do it the old-fashioned way, however unpopular. Don't have local police run ostensible DUI checkpoints whose real aim is to find undocumented immigrants driving without licenses and impound their cars for thirty days before selling them to the highest bidder. These checkpoints are discriminatory. They are unconstitutional. They are one small but not insignificant result of a society too immature, and a political system too dysfunctional, to fund essential public services in a conscionable, sensible way: by paying for them directly. The country of course is in the midst of an economic crisis and a recession, but this story underscores a more permanent problem in the U.S.: the survival of a me-first, devil-take-the-hindmost mentality that may have been in some ways beneficial during the first century or so of the republic's existence but became counterproductive in the twentieth century and is unqualifiedly disastrous in the twenty-first.

No comments: